June 11, 2019 – Vanessa Ascough “An Attempt to Fly Around the World”

Vanessa Ascough
Writer

The granddaughter of Archibald Stuart-MacLaren, Vanessa has spent many years researching his life and career in the RFC and RAF and giving talks about his attempt to fly round the world with two crew in 1924.

She was delighted to visit HMCS Esquimalt in Victoria last year to see the propeller of their Vickers Vulture amphibian airplane which hangs on the wall of the Officers Mess.

Born in Devon in the UK, Vanessa has also lived in Cape Town, Sydney and Hong Kong. She continues her passion for adventure and public speaking and is now writing the biography of her grandfather’s life and vocation.

Summary

Archibald Stuart-MacLaren, born 1892 in Oxfordshire, was one of the most distinguished and promising RAF pilots of his generation. In WWI he was commissioned to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers Special Reserve. In 1914, he transferred to Royal Flying Corps and served as a bomber pilot in the Middle East and Europe. He gained the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in 1916, and later gained a bar to the cross. In April 1918, he was commissioned into the newly formed RAF. He was also awarded the Air Force Cross for captaining the maiden flight from England to Egypt, with his dog, Tiny. He was appointed as an OBE in 1919 for being part of opening the first airmail routes across the world and he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for serving in Aden in 1921-22. His granddaughter, Vanessa Ascough, has chronicled his life and now gives presentations on her grandfather’s life and vocation.

In 1922, his love of long-distance flying and adventure led him to start making plans to be the first person to fly around the world. An attempt had been made unsuccessfully by Wilfred Blake earlier that year. His crew consisted of himself, Flying Officer William Noble Plenderleith and flight engineer, Sergeant W.H. Andrews, two fellow adventurers.

The British Air Ministry did not want to risk another failure after the last attempt, so they were not interested in this mission. The flight was therefore funded entirely by private investors. Vickers designed two identical planes made of wood, canvas, and some metal reinforcements for the mission – the Vickers Vulture amphibian biplane G-ABHO and G-EBGO, the only two that were ever built of this kind. The planes had dual controls with a range of 1,150 miles and a cruising speed of 85-90 mph. The crew had a limit of 10 lbs of personal luggage each, as weight was a huge factor in the flight’s ability to succeed. They also brought along a shotgun, a fishing rod, and tinned beef rations. The undercarriage, specifically designed for this flight, could be raised and lowered by hand from the cockpit to allow for landing on both land and sea. Napier line provided the engines, Shamnex the fuel, and Burberry the coats. The flight was documented through photographs and the Times newspaper.

They mapped their route from West to East. Starting from Calshot in Southampton Water and then down through Europe and the Mediterranean, through the Middle East, to India, Burma and China, up through Japan and Kamchatka , the Aleutian Islands, to Alaska and then through Canada to the Atlantic crossing, through Portugal, Spain and back through France and finally, London. With a total planned distance of 23,254 miles in an estimated flying time of 293 hours. At the same time that these plans were announced, the Americans, Portuguese, Italians, and French also announced that they would be making attempts to fly around the word.

After months of data collection on things such as landmarks, compass variations, and local time changes, they were ready for takeoff. An exhilarated crowd sent off the Vulture G-ABHO at noon on March 25th, 1924 in what appeared to be perfect conditions. Thirty-five minutes into the flight however, the crew ran into fog and bad weather which caused them to fly completely blind at 50 feet above the water, narrowly missing cliffs. They had to make their first stop of the trip. “Weather here is like pea soup” described Squadron Leader Stuart-MacLaren. Unfortunately, this would be a common theme throughout their journey.

They also had to make their first stop for general repairs in Rome from March 28th-31st. However, they would soon need to make much larger repairs, another common theme in this journey. Between Rome and Athens, a terrible noise prompted the crew to make an emergency landing on a lake in Corfu. The noise was due to stripped reduction gears and a cracked crank case. While they waited for a new engine and an engineer, they shaved in the office of the Times correspondent and a generous local lent them some drachmae to purchase cheese, bread, eggs, and wine. This delayed their trip by three weeks. On April 16th, they reached Athens, with a total flying time of 26 hours and dropped a biscuit tin into the water with a note alerting Cairo that they were heading over, very high tech! The flight towards Athens took 8.75 hours, one of the longest legs of the journey. The desert sands caused some further mechanical issues and they had to stop for more repairs.

They made a stop in a small town in Transjordan, where the Times reported that, “the place was deserted, except for a few Bedouin who were totally puzzled by the strange aircraft with the body of a boat, that had landed in their desert”. From here they followed the airmail route towards Baghdad, that MacLaren knew well. This part of the trip went fairly smoothly with a few stops for small repairs and refueling. On April 26th, they left Karachi. From this point onwards, the team did not have any experience with the route and would have to rely solely on their pre-planning. On their way to their next destination, the engine just stopped while they were flying at an altitude of 4,000 feet. Luckily, they landed safely, but would be delayed another month as they waited for a new engine to arrive from Baghdad. While MacLaren went off on a borrowed pony to ask for help, the locals helped the crew cover the plane with cloth and vegetation to protect it against the sand and the heat. The new engine was delivered by cows.
On May 21st, they flew towards Bangkok for the tropical leg of the journey. It was the monsoon season at the time in the tropics, sometimes flying through solid sheets of water at 500 feet. This is the stage in the journey in which Major Wilfred Blake failed, in 1922, on his attempt around the world. On May 24th, the plane took off for the last time, falling like a stone in the water just minutes after takeoff. The crew managed to make it out unscathed but the extreme weather conditions throughout their journey had made the plane unsalvageable.

Luckily though, there was still the spare aircraft, G-EBGO. It was in a packing case in Tokyo, 4,000 miles away and arrived 18 days later with the help of the American Destroyer crew that was also attempting their flight around the world. They made the difficult and exhausting journey towards China and Japan, where they had to change the engine one last time before the hardest leg of the trip, across the international dateline towards Alaska. After a minor search and rescue mission, they took off towards Bering Island on August 4th. Heavy fog and rain caused them to crash in cold and tumultuous waves. The crew was safe, but the plane was destroyed and the mission came to a close. MacLaren wrote, “I am not ashamed to say that I wept bitterly. We have failed. But we did our best. We were beaten in the end by fog alone.” In the end, they managed to cover 13,100 miles in 195.25 flying hours and 130 days. They returned to Liverpool on September 20th by boat. With open cockpits, a finicky wooden hull, bad weather, sandstorms, heatstroke, weight issues, hunger, exhaustion, deafness, cracked hulls, engine replacements, the crew wouldn’t have ever made it as far as they did without their own determination, the help of locals and friendly rivals, or the hospitality of international governments.

On September 28th, the American world flight ended successfully in Seattle. It took them 175 days to cover 27,534 miles. MacLaren went out to Seattle to greet them and show them his respect for their help on his own journey.
The crew never sadly never saw each other again. MacLaren retired from the RAF in 1930. He died in Madeira in 1943 at the age of 51. Vanessa continues his love for adventure and exploration, and is currently working on his biography.

You can see the Vickers Vulture amphibian airplane propeller at the HMCS Esquimalt in Victoria where it hangs on the wall of the Officers Mess.

Q & A Transcription

Question: By which method were the engines started?
Answer: Gosh. Well I imagine they probably had to push the propeller around I should imagine. But I can’t answer that and it’s a very good question and I need to find that out. Maybe they had a key that they turned. I don’t know.

Question: Did the Times have correspondents around the world, or did they go along with them?
Answer: No, they have correspondents all around the world who picked up on it. And also, at various places where they landed, they would send messages back to the Times. So, they either had their own correspondents picking up or else they were just picking up on what Grandfather and Plenderleith wrote in their logs. So, both of those things.

Question: I think you mentioned that they had no radio communications on board. Why would that be a given that radio communications were available at that time?
Answer: Well they just weren’t given any. It wasn’t fixed up in the plane. In 1924, I don’t know whether other airplanes had that, but certainly they were given nothing. And Grandfather, chap that he was, thought he could do it all on his own way anyway, so he didn’t bother to ask for any.

Question: Do we take it that you didn’t have the courage to become a pilot yourself?
Answer: No, I didn’t. All my family were in the services. My father was in the Army. My mother was in the WRNS. They were all in it. No, it never occurred to me to want to do that. So, I went down a lot of other different kinds of routes, but not that one. I think my father actually was very disappointed that I didn’t marry a man from the Army.

Question: I heard in your introduction that you now live in Hong Kong. I thought you might give us inside track on the demonstrations.
Answer: No. No, I used to. I lived 10 years in Hong Kong. If my son was here, he lives in Hong Kong now with his father and he would be able to, I’m sure. But no, I left Hong Kong in 1985 before it went over to China. It was still owned by the British then. Wonderful place then, now, don’t bother to go.


Leave a Reply